by Cathy Dunn and Phil Allcock

Some fundamental principles.

Michael Gelb has studied the genius of Leonardo da Vinci and come up with seven fundamental principles of innovation. Here is a summary of those principles, which, if applied to the five-stage process, can help us innovate.


This is the notion of ‘incurable curiosity’, where you are always asking questions and seeking to understand how things work, what they do and how it’s done – always looking, always seeking to understand, as a young child will look on the world with wide-eyed interest and wonder. If you are always interested in what’s going on around you and observing what is happening, then you are likely to notice many different things and you may suddenly see something that sparks an idea or suggests a different way of doing something. Curiosità is what enabled James Dyson to notice that his Hoover wasn’t working very efficiently and then how effective the extractor-fan in his local sawmill was.

Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.

Thomas Edison


This is all about trying things, having a go or, as the Nike tag line says, ‘Just do it’. Until you test something out, you’ll have no way of knowing whether the idea that your curiosity has just planted in your mind will work or not. Part of Dimostrazione is also perseverance or keeping on testing out variations. After all, inventions don’t just happen on the drawing board – think of Edison and his light bulbs.


Observation of what’s happening around you through using all of your senses gives a richness of data. What does it taste like; what does it feel like; what colour is it, and so on. Using different senses can enable you to come at ideas and observations from other angles and encourage new insights. Gathering a wide variety of different types of data about the things that catch your interest introduces more possibilities of seeing new ways to apply and implement what you observe.


In this instance we are not talking about a paint technique developed by Leonardo, but a description of living with uncertainty. Trying out new ideas can sometimes be scary – you are moving into the unknown, because you don’t know in advance whether your ideas will work. Developing a level of comfort with ambiguity helps you to be willing to go in a direction that may not be entirely clear, just to see what happens – you may discover something surprising! After all, if you always do the same thing you are likely to always get the same result. So, for example, by trying a different route to work, you may uncover new insights through seeing the world from a different perspective.

There’s a great poem by Robert Frost that finishes with these three lines:


Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.

‘Sfumato’ can sometimes mean having the courage to take that new road.


Renaissance man, of whom Leonardo is the model, did not feel obliged to be either an artist or a scientist, but was happy to be both. In the 21st century, though, we have become a society which fails to develop the whole brain effectively. Our education system has valued logical, left-brain thinking and doesn’t encourage the sort of right-brain creative, imaginative, big picture thinking that would enable us to develop a more balanced ‘whole-brain’ approach. Leonardo, on the other hand, had no trouble moving between painting and studying the principle of flight. For him, art and science were indissolubly linked, so giving him access to a wide range of possibilities to see new ways to operate and do things. James Dyson is a modern example – he trained at the Royal College of Art and then became an inventor. Both da Vinci and Dyson combined their artistic talents with a love of turning ideas into useful things. Often this can mean, for us, being open to the idea that analogies, or things that we are reminded of when we consider our problem, or simple pictures, drawn by us or by others, of things related to it, are powerful routes to innovation.


Something of the same notion of balance applies here and can be summed up in the phrase ‘Mens sana in corpore sano’ – a healthy mind in a healthy body. To think well, we need to care for our bodies and also to pay attention to our spiritual life. And, if we can think well, then we are able to observe the world around us closely and notice those things that will help us generate new thoughts and ideas. Caring about how we look and feel allows us to free our minds to think more creatively. Think how much more clearly you can think about things when you have had the chance to relax and focus on something differently – for example, by following a meditation practice. Also, for some people, running, cycling or swimming produces the type of brain waves that enable us to be creative.


And finally, there is the idea that everything is somehow connected. Before the later theories of David Bohm, with his concept of ‘implicate order’ and the thinking of Edward O Wilson, Leonardo believed that ‘everything comes from everything, and everything is made out of everything, and everything returns into everything.’

My innovation involved taking an idea from the telecommunications and banking industries, and applying that idea to transportation business.

Frederick W Smith, founder and CEO, Fed-Ex

If all things are connected, then observation of the world around us can lead us to see patterns, relationships and the systems that make things work and can help us build new awareness. The idea that what works for a shark might just help a human swim faster, if they wore a swim suit designed to replicate shark skin, or that what enables a cat to jump from a high wall and keep running might just help tyres absorb the forces of braking more effectively are just two examples of ‘connessione’.